The Dawn: June 27, 2014

Punjab Notes: Once upon a time…

Mushtaq Soofi 

In a far-flung area in south Punjab right in the middle of two villages there is a primary school. A winding dirt path, eight kilometres long, connects these villages to an asphalt (pucca) road. Barring a few landlords, the population comprises peasant proprietors, small landholders, tenants and traditional artisans.

The school is a compound, measuring a little more than two acres, protected by thick mud walls with two gates. It has three classrooms, a football ground and open area with lot of indigenous trees whose thick foliage and green umbrellas make it a refreshingly cool place in the sizzling summer.

The walks are properly marked with white lime powder. Each walk is lined with flowers and small plants on both sides. Some flowerbeds in the open spaces create an ambiance which is in a stark contrast to drabness of mud walls of the compound beyond which stand the seasonal crops with their splash of natural colours. No student is allowed to step into the flowerbed or mess with the carefully nurtured delicate plants.

The students reach the school in the morning with their freshly washed faces carrying their ‘Basta’, the satchels along with their mid-day meal, wrapped usually in colourful pieces of cloth. The latecomers, irrespective of social status, are treated with equal harshness by the headmaster who is not shy of using his stick called ‘rule’ for some strange reason by the students. The absentee has to bring his father or some other male member of the family next day to explain the reason for missing the class. A teacher goes on leave only when absolutely necessary. If and when a class teacher is absent, the headmaster directs some other teacher to take care of his class.

The first thing in the morning students do is to dust off the ‘taats’ (jute mats) they sit on while in the class. After the cleaning session they go to the ‘assembly’, the gathering of all the students and the teachers to recite prayer and verses before going to the classes. The attendance is compulsory for all. The teachers are caring but fearsome. A student found guilty of misconduct is given corporal punishment. The practice is not uncommon. During the class hours the headmaster is usually on the round. There is ‘disciplined quiet’ all around. At times one can hear the students chant in chorus, a teacher shout or headmaster thunder.

At mid-day the recess comes as a big relief for the boys who can make now as much noise as they like and have their meals. In the meanwhile, ‘chowkidar’ brings a bag to a ‘karah’ (a bid round shallow pan atop a low height mud platform). He lets a certain quantity of white powder slip into the big pot and empties a few cans full of water into it. Then he takes a long wooden ladle and stirs and shakes the stuff for some time. When he is done with the process, he proudly shouts at the top of his voice ‘Chhoro dudh pi lao’ (boys, have your milk). It is officially provided free of cost to the young students.

It’s an unusual day at the school. There are no classes today. The headmaster and the teachers are anxiously waiting for somebody. The boys are scared but giggling. A four-member team enters the school with strange-looking bags. The headmaster receives his guests and offers them chairs. After a chit chat the guests unzip their funny bags and one can see them arranging strange sort of needles and vile full of fluids. A senior teacher orders the boys in a loud voice to queue up. Now everybody knows who these guests are and what they are up to. ‘Oye, teeke wale’ boys whisper with shivering voices in anticipation of pain the vaccinators’ needles may inflict. Once in a year paramedics visit the school and vaccinate the students.

Physical training called PT is compulsory for the students which is a lot of fun. Not all the students are required to play football but the school has its team that has regular practice session in the evening under the supervision of instructor called PT master.

What has been described above is not a piece of fiction. It’s an actual story of a school, a government school that existed in a remote rural area till early 60s of the last century. This was not a rare phenomenon. Such schools, the legacy of ‘colonialism’, existed all over Punjab.

Unhappy with such vestiges of colonialism, the young elite of the new state of Pakistan turned this school into a ‘dera of the local wadera’ run by his punters. New ‘English medium school’ has replaced the old one displaying the signboard ‘English medium’ in Arabic or Persian letters. —

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